Atomic Habits: British Cycling Update
Date: October 16, 2018
First, thank you for reading Atomic Habits. I hope you’ve been enjoying the first chapter. I’m going to provide more detail about the British Cycling team on this page, but before I do, I want to remind you about a key point:
The first chapter of Atomic Habits is not about cycling, but rather about how habits compound over time and why making small improvements on a daily basis can lead to a significant difference in the long-run. It’s about the philosophy of continuous improvement and why that’s useful. As I describe the details of the British Cycling story below, I don’t want you to lose the forest for the trees.
That said, the story of British Cycling is more complicated than I originally believed when I was writing Atomic Habits and, thankfully, I was able to squeeze in the footnote in Chapter 1 before the book went to the printer, which allows me to provide additional context and updates here.
I first heard the story about Dave Brailsford, British Cycling, and the “aggregation of marginal gains” sometime in late 2013.
At that time, the group was fresh off winning their first Tour de France in 2012 and a boatload of gold medals at the 2012 Olympics in London. Shortly after, I wrote about their success in an article.
One year later, I began working on Atomic Habits and the article about British Cycling became part of the manuscript (and ultimately ended up in the first chapter).
To be honest, I didn’t stay up-to-date on cycling results or watch future races after that original article. I write about a wide variety of topics and I spent the next few years continuing my research and writing about habits. Cycling news wasn’t a major part of that process.
However, as I was preparing my final edits on the book, I returned to the British Cycling section and did some fact-checking (just as I did for every other section of the book). I verified the total number of gold medals and Tour de France titles won by British Cyclists as well as other details of the story. I also did a quick search for general news on the team and that brings us to where we are today…
Dave Brailsford, British Cycling, and Team Sky have continued their success after my initial article: winning 5 of the last 6 Tour de France events with 3 different riders, capturing dozens of gold medals, and setting many Olympic and World Records in the process. Their system works very well.
However, they have also been the subject of recent scrutiny and many people are questioning whether they have achieved “marginal gains” in areas outside of the boundaries set by the rules.
As best I can tell, there are two primary issues.
First, some British riders used drugs for a “therapeutic use exemption,” also known as a TUE. These drugs would normally be banned from cycling, but if a rider has a medical reason for using the drug, then an exemption is granted. The most notable case involved intramuscular injections received by Bradley Wiggins before his Tour de France victory in 2012. 1
The concern is that British Cycling not only used TUEs for their intended medical purpose, but also in an effort to gain a performance edge. Shane Sutton, a former British Cycling coach said, “If you’ve got an athlete that’s 95% ready, and that little 5% injury or niggle that’s troubling, if you can get that TUE to get them to 100%, yeah of course you would in those days.” 2
This type of sentiment naturally has many people wondering how often British riders relied on TUEs for performance gains rather than medical necessity. Not all British riders have been accused of these actions and, technically speaking, the British team didn’t break any World Anti-Doping Agency rules with these injections, but the general feeling is that the British Cycling team tried to “game the system” and squeak out an extra advantage that the rules were not intended to provide.
The second issue involved British rider Chris Froome, who has won multiple Tour de France titles. At one point, he was found to have almost twice the allowed dose of salbutamol (an asthma medication) in his system. In this case, Froome was in excess of the World Anti-Doping Agency limit, which is an obvious violation. (Also, it is another example of British riders using medications to gain an advantage.)
The day I am writing this update (October 16, 2018) is the publication day for Atomic Habits. As of today, the investigations into British Cycling are still on-going and remain unresolved.
I try to maintain a fairly even-handed approach in my writing, but I will say that it is hard for me to believe that the British Cycling team is entirely clean given the details of these cases and the history of the sport.
Most people are familiar with the story of Lance Armstrong and his doping scandal. There have been many others in the history of cycling as well. And if you watch films like Icarus (a fantastic documentary, by the way), you can see how deeply doping has infected not only cycling, but also the sports industry as a whole.
Although I learned about the details of the British Cycling scandal too late to alter the story in the book, I felt that it would be irresponsible for me to not include a note about the scandal and an update on publication day discussing the current situation.
Again, Chapter 1 is not actually about cycling, but it is a key story in that section and whenever possible I want to do my best to share accurate and complete information with you. Thank you for reading this update. I hope you enjoy the rest of the book.